The Conundrum – Style Vs Brand

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art ?”
Kipling The Conundrum of the Workshops

These days most everything done in the Art World is very, very pretty and it’s always promoted as Art. I thought of this as I stumbled through the MOMA show of Martin Kippenberger’s work the other day. Meandering into the galleries and looking at these works gives one the feeling that the well worn theoretical tracks of anxious objects and offhand throwaways are now decorously tasteful and bourgeois in their ways, and yes, a lot of that Art is very, very pretty. Today most all of the institutional usual suspects have been re-discovering – yet again – that “anti-beauty” is pretty. It’s the natural order of things – the malevalent dog ages into the family pet, the revolutionary becomes the bureaucrat. Maybe Kippenberger would enjoy this idea, maybe not. After looking at his paintings for a while I also found that his theoretics weren’t above the concept of beauty – in fact in many of these works he courted beauty at arm’s length, keeping a respectful distance. How do I know this? Kippenberger’s color is lovely and very German through and through. There is that foresty green that is never acidic, the chartreuse that looks so sour, the red that is dirt rich, the yellows that burnish into golds and the blues that fade quickly in the pasty whites. Beautiful. And Art. What is apparent straight away is that he painted even though he was neither a natural painter nor even an interesting one. His paintings are all half realized. It’s also visually apparent that the idea that started the painting was much faster and more fulfilling than the realization it demanded. Alternatively, if he had worked the paint maybe the idea would have become dull and thin. Bill DeKooning once said that painters usually don’t have very good ideas – and he was right. It’s all in how you handle it. Either way, Kippenberger didn’t want or need to master the craft or even worry about how using a certain craft might convey an idea. He was on to other things. Once one removes oneself from the game one isn’t judged by its rules. If one doesn’t develop a style one can be anything to anyone. In the end the painting really didn’t matter – Kippy was way too busy producing Art. What was the Devil whispering in his ear?

MOMA has also included a great many of the artful objects he concocted using the now academic ham-handed-spit-and-wire technique. These urbane sort of primitive objects are displayed at MOMA like we have been transported to a demented IKEA showroom (and the museum’s architecture doesn’t dissuade one from thinking this.) Of course this is part of his point. These retrofitted objects are art-like consumer goods. As Roberta Smith wrote in her 1987 review of the then 34 year old Kippenberger’s work: “Anything goes with Mr. Kippenberger, and nothing is sacred. He means to question many of the basic assumptions about sculpture: the importance of craft, of beautiful or costly materials, of visual logic itself. His objects often seem incompetently built, capriciously structured and arbitrarily titled. Their modest materials and occasional found objects are devoid of esthetic value; their crowded installation defies vision, challenging the viewer to see any one of them as sculpture per se.” This description of Kippenberger’s objects from the 80s could also be written about many of the installations and objects we see in the galleries, art fairs, institutions and studios of today. But for Kippenberger this Neo-Dada approach to consumer detritus is about making distinctions between Art and Art-as-product. I also want to point out a further distinction about a new form of an “art consumer” that was arriving on the scene at that moment. Artists were expanding the insular Postmodern critique that had focused on its own peculiar history to encompass a more ambitious critique that included the political, social and economic justifications behind that history – bringing in new customers. Here in Kippenberger’s works is the start of the first truly Global Art Movement. It not only questioned the art object, it began to address our contemporary conundrum – Style Vs Brand?

Art or Art Product

In the 30s, 40s and 50s there was a lot of talk of art being folded into the culture, making art a less specialized activity. A lot of this critique and theorizing was brought about by the combined forces of the economic depression, two world wars and the unsolvable problems inherent in capitalist doctrines. For many critics Capital-A Art should be a more “democratic” everyday experience practiced by the average working class citizen. The problem confronting those artists and theorists is that Capital-A Art is a discipline practiced by an intellectual group that is usually antagonistic to and set apart from working class sensibilities. It was the worry and hope of Modernists everywhere that Art as practiced would, should and could become a part of the everyday experience of the population at large. Art must be ingrained in the Every Man – as easy to come upon as a Model T or cup of Maxwell House coffee. Its former pretensions as something separate and higher would no longer be a point of contention between the classes. In this way Modernism hoped to level Capital-A Art by creating cultures of higher ideals readymade for the inhabitants of a new century. In other words – they wanted to swap “high” for “low.” You can see the desire for expanded higher cultures in Matisse’s idea that paintings would comfort like an easy chair for the tired business man, the Bauhaus and the Neoplastics intention to provide better design and living for the everyman, and even the Surrealists’ invasions and interpretations of the dreams and nightmares of “civilized” humans. However this idealism faded quickly at the dawn of the Post-industrial society. A new Postmodern Art was being folded into the mass culture just as the early 20th Century theorists had planned, but not in a way or with the outcome they had foreseen.

Consumer Culture did what Avant Garde Art could not do.

Over the last 40 years much has been made of the change to our economy. We moved from an industrial based economy to one based on services. The rise of the Global Corporations, the proliferation of private ownership – from copyrights to water – and the consolidation of power and capital have all been major trends during this time. In these Post-Industrial Societies goods and services have proliferated at an exponential pace. These goods and services are not necessarily based on innovations, but are actually recombinations and upgrades of ideas, goods and services already in use. These sorts of retrofitting theoretical principles are entrenched in Postmodern thought. For artists it has meant that innovation isn’t the goal of Art. For the Postmodernist style and innovation no longer drive the dialectic of art. Capital-A Art as a practice or as a dialectic is already defined as a professional doctrine. It does not exist as an actuality or a possibility. Art, then, is received and studied like a program and tweaked or upgraded to expand the capabilities of the program. These upgrades are mainly concerned with customization, personalization and identification. Identification allows one to subsume one’s personality attributes to the program itself. Personalization then takes place allowing the program user to define how the program represents one’s interests. Finally customization allows the user to make various choices already latent within the program itself. In the art world a similar process of assimilation has taken place. First there was academization and professionalization of Modernism in the 1960s. This was followed by the proliferation and mass institutionalization of art as a corporatized culture/business in the 1980s. And finally, art was seamlessly folded into the global economies of the early 21st century (the aughties) as a specialized consumer good. Art is no longer an activity of the avant garde looking to advance ideas and principles, a specialized activity of non-conformists or revolutionaries, but another profession that produces goods and services for consumption and investment. Art is now a business.

And with any business that sells products, objects, there is a way to go about it. “A brand is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a service, a person or any other entity.” In the art world brands have become ubiquitous. Brand names are synonymous with a type of product and a kind of value. Brands determine this value. Brands also determine a certain social pecking order, just as they do in other segments of the economy. Blue chip stocks, couture fashions, Hollywood movie stars and now certain types of art are all seen as representing a certain kind of individual. The fact that these brands become cultural displays places the consumer in that certain social group, certain monetary class and certain “cutting-edge” niche of society. Brands are not necessarily there to define the maker of the goods, they are there to define the consumer of the goods. They are made FOR a certain strata of consumer society. Brands, like markets, demand stability in order for them to work. Innovation is confined to slight tweaks of the products without altering the underlying appeal and stability of the brand. Synergies are the sought after outcomes. For instance let’s look to Murakami’s involvement with the fashion brand Louis Vuitton. Murakami, a branded artist, merged his designs with LV to create new products incorporating both his stylized art and LV’s iconic objects thus creating a new consumer product and a new art product – all the while defining a renewed consumer desire for both Murakami and LV. This type of cross pollination with “legit” business is becoming more common in the art world as more artists are designing art products that mesh easily in the common culture.

The point is that with the ascendancy of branding in the art world the idea of style has taken a back seat. Brands are conceptual in nature. Brands are all about the transparency of perception, and with that transparency, comes confidence. Confidence in one’s choice and confidence in one’s associations. Branding is not about the personal, branding is about the public, branding is about cultural perceptions. That’s why brands are marketed and advertised as a known quantity, a known product. Precedent is extremely important to their upkeep. One thing leads to another, but wherever we may go, we are always referred back to the brand’s original intent. And at the beginnings of today’s institutionalized art this idea of continuity became extremely important – especially at the end of Modernism and the avant garde and the rise of the post-industrialist collector. At the Museum of Modern Art William Rubin’s groupings and legacies of Modernist art, seen as a series of inevitable progressions, leads one, finally, to the Museum itself. In other words, without the history of Modernism the MOMA would not exist, and without MOMA, Modernism would fade in the public consciousness. Modernism became a Branded enterprise so that the museum would exist to service it. One brand synergies with another creating a service economy for the Brand itself – Modernism TM and MOMA Inc. As institutions grow and become known so does the confidence in the brands they service. Brand is ultimately about issues of power and control. Whoever controls the institution controls the Brand. One feeds into the other creating synergies. Brands may have style, but the concept behind the brand is not about style, it is about control. And that control of the brand and all of its implications, products and objects is finally about confidence. For art and many other products Brands will shush the whispering devil of doubt and solve the conundrum. Brands imply immortality, precedence, continuity, power and incidentally beauty. Brands have made just about everything that we see in the galleries, museums and institutions pretty and Art. One has confidence when one invests in a brand. One knows that all the doubt can just go to the devil.

The tale is as old as the Eden Tree – and new as the new-cut tooth –
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: “You did it, but was it Art ?”

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